I had intended to drop the issue of Adrian Warnock versus Rob Bell. But Adrian’s latest post Is Rob Bell a neo-liberal who does not take the Bible literally? goes into a lot more detail about why he refuses to accept Bell as an evangelical. As such it reads a bit like a response to my post Rob Bell, Adrian Warnock and limits of evangelicalism, although it does not mention what I wrote.
It is really interesting to see what Adrian considers to disqualify someone from being an evangelical. One of them seems to be speaking to ordinary people and observing the world, and then allowing that to inform one’s theology. Another is to ask questions. Of course Jesus based much of his teaching on what he observed in the world and from ordinary people, and asked lots of questions. Is Rob Bell wrong to follow the same methods?
Perhaps most telling is the apparent claim in the title of his post that anyone who “does not take the Bible literally” is not an evangelical but a “neo-liberal”. More specifically, Adrian’s charge against Rob Bell is that
he no longer takes the Bible literally whenever it is possible to do so.
The problem with this argument is that no evangelical, indeed no one as far as I know, actually takes the Bible literally, even with the qualification “whenever it is possible to do so”. I made this point in one of the first blog posts I ever wrote, at Better Bibles Blog in 2005, Does God have a long nose? See also the related post, here at Gentle Wisdom in 2008, Love takes a long thyme, in which I also wrote about
the Pinocchio approach to Scripture: the more you misrepresent it, the longer your nose and so the greater your love!
Well, I am not seriously accusing anyone of that. But I do claim, as explained in those posts, that anyone who does not believe that God has a long nose, literally, does not take literally the whole Bible in its original language texts. This is the clear teaching of Exodus 34:6 in the Hebrew, and it is possible to take it literally, at least as a description of the body of Jesus, God become flesh. Does anyone do so? Not as far as I know. Not even Adrian himself takes the Bible literally. That means that on his definition there are probably no evangelicals at all, and we should all be described with Rob Bell as “neo-liberals”.
Another example: the biblical word for “hell” as place of punishment is literally Gehenna, the name of a specific and literal valley outside the walls of Jerusalem. As it is quite possible to take this literally, why don’t “Reformed” evangelicals teach that their place of “eternal conscious punishment” is physically located in that valley?
So, the real issue between different evangelicals is which parts of the Bible they take literally. But where does one draw the line? And what exactly does it mean to take the Bible literally?
Surely it is better to accept the current standard definitions of evangelicalism, such as the British Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith and the American Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. In these the Bible is described as inspired by God, as authoritative for believers, and in some cases as infallible or inerrant. But these statements do not prescribe that it must always be taken literally, no doubt because the good evangelical scholars who prepared them recognise that this is impossible.